Holiday lighting is popular service for landscape contractors who are looking for work in the off-season. But those who have been doing it a long time know it’s not a simple undertaking. Landscape business owners who have built successful services say holiday lighting takes hard work, dedication and a lot of creativity.
Coming up with the perfect holiday lighting design does require the ideal combination of customer input and professional know-how. A lot of customers do have ideas in mind if they seek out holiday lighting. But Nikos Phelps, president of Utopian Landscapes LLC, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, has been doing holiday lighting long enough — since 2007 — to know when something a client wants might not work. Along with his wife, Terra, who often assists with designs, he’s found he must delicately balance “wants” with “what actually works.”
“In many ways it’s quite similar to landscaping in that regard,” he says. “The customer will come in and say, ‘I want this, this and this,’ but if you’ve been doing it long enough, you have a much better sense of what works and what doesn’t. Plus, you have to balance all of that with their budget.”
Like many, Phelps got into holiday lighting as a way to sustain his business in the winter. Though many tend to jump in and out of holiday lighting — often depending on whether they have a big snow season — Phelps has actually turned a lot of his focus to building the service. He starts prepping for the service in August, starts installs Oct. 1, and performs take-downs from January through mid-February.
“Since we start in the fall, one of the biggest challenges has been shutting down the construction division at that point and having to actually turn work away so that we can start holiday lighting,” Phelps admits.
Those who are truly in holiday lighting as more than just a small side job echo the same sentiments. Brian Rudish, co-owner and irrigation business developer for A Plus Lawn & Landscape in Des Moines, Iowa, has been doing holiday lighting for 15 years. He says their big push starts in August. Like Phelps, by Oct. 1, lights are already being strung.
David Veron, president of The Veron Co. in Marlborough, Massachusetts, says he starts a big marketing push over the Fourth of July, but has already built up a solid base of customers and works mostly off renewals. Having trained through Walt Disney World for holiday lighting, Veron is tackling the big (minimum $1,000) jobs that require bucket trucks and serious dedication.
Despite landing jobs that could bring in as much as $20,000, Veron admits the field is not as profitable as it used to be. And that’s due to insurance costs.
“The holiday lighting business is not cheap to insure,” Veron admits. “It’s a very dangerous service – you’re up high, often in bad weather and working with electricity.”
The service is definitely a lot more extensive than one might imagine. Tom Tolkacz, CEO of Swingle Lawn, Tree & Landscape Care in Denver, says that beyond extensive training in design and installation techniques, his designers also have a firm understanding of electrical instruction and thorough ladder and roof safety. Swingle uses multiple, highly trained crews.
Rudish says he would call the learning curve for holiday lighting “large,” and that workers must have a solid understanding of electrical current. He has found there to be many similarities to irrigation work, so the crossover for the irrigation crew was easier. But with the right training, the lawn care techs have also learned the necessary skills. Rudish says the company runs four or five holiday lighting crews with two to three guys per crew.
Phelps says that Utopian crews are also trained to crossover into holiday lighting. As the season gets busy, everyone has to chip in, though they are trained for either roof work or ground lighting. Phelps reiterates what others have stressed — the importance of safety.
“If you’re going to do holiday lighting, you need to do the proper training and take all the precautions,” he stresses. “Our crews are in harnesses and are well trained. We have 15 different types of ladders so that there’s one that’s right for any situation. But you have to know that when you’re working off the ground with electric — sometimes in icy conditions — that there is risk involved.”
A spectacular holiday lighting design takes know-how and creativity. Tolkacz says many of the designs that Swingle creates are inspired by the homes themselves.
“The overall design of any home speaks to the possible artistry Swingle can create with our holiday lighting services,” he says. “From dramatic columns to exciting architectural elements to expansive windows — these all combine to create a blank canvas for Swingle’s designers. Tree lighting is one of our signature services. We find great enjoyment in pulling inspiration from the wonderful creations of Mother Nature, which allows us to produce dazzling displays that are sure to be the envy of the neighborhood.”
Bill Mansoor, general manager of the maintenance division for Designs by Sundown, headquartered in Littleton, Colorado, says that he’s always thinking ahead about holiday lighting designs. He will drive around the city to experience some of the large government displays and make notes to incorporate ideas into next year’s “visions,” Mansoor says.
“We also make use of our distributors who have the new lighting décor products, asking them to demo certain lights or garland,” Mansoor says.
While ideas can help generate fresh creativity, Veron says it’s also important to have someone on the team who has a keen eye for design. Having learned from the masters of holiday lighting — the creative folks at Disney — Veron says some of his inspiration comes from that experience. However, he adds that creativity isn’t something that can be taught.
“To really do a spectacular job with holiday lights, you have to have an eye for it,” Veron says. “You have to know what’s really going to pop. There’s a whole lot more to it than just stringing lights.